By Matthew Meador
For the Oregon Beer Growler
I used to hate the holidays. Well, maybe “hate” is a strong word. At best, the holiday season offered a reason for an extended period of revelry along with invitations to some great parties. Altogether, though, the sense of harried chaos that has come to define this holiest of all shopping seasons was a pretty strong turn-off. From traffic and crowded malls to artificially cheery canned music and incessant bells outside the doors of every drugstore, I had decided the whole season was something I could do without. But, hey, even though I may have experienced some inconvenience and irritation from all the commercial rush, attending parties is a pretty good way to take the edge off, right?
I spent the holiday seasons of my twenties grumbling. Then I had kids. If one single event can wipe out a Scrooge’s Christmas crankiness, it’s having children. Something about the wide-eyed wonder of a little one discovering the season is truly magical. I think my transformation was complete when I took my preschool-aged daughter to see Santaland in a helicopter. Santa climbed out of the aircraft, dozens of excited kids looking on. The big red jolly fellow walked right up to me and said, “Hi, Matt!” My daughter, awestruck, looked up at me with giant eyes and asked, “You know Santa, Dad?” It turns out — unknown to me — one of my friends was playing Santa at that event. I am forever grateful to him for that moment.
So my seasonal outlook got considerably brighter when my daughters came along. I now tolerate the hectic holiday madness maybe better than most parents. Okay, let’s be honest: I actually enjoy the holiday season now — there’s no “tolerate” about it. But even though “party season” has become “parent season,” I still manage to celebrate the old-fashioned way with festive seasonal brews like the ones we feature in this month’s blind tasting evaluation.
Widmer: Brrr, Portland
7.15% ABV; 50 IBUs
Brewer’s Description: Brrr is a moderately strong dark red ale. The generous use of citrusy hops provides a tangible, but not excessive, bitterness that ultimately erodes into a candy-like malty sweetness and quick finish. Caramel and chocolate malts provide complexity, an enticing color and subtle dark malt flavors.
Consumer Comments: Of all the packages under the tree, this brew was our panelists’ favorite. Widmer hits the winter mark with Brrr, a bright, amber-colored brew with a sultry nose of florals and grains. Well-balanced and bold, this brew is defined by hops without being overwhelmed. Tasters noted its smoothness and up-front flavor, agreeing it could earn a place on any holiday beverage menu.
Full Sail: Wassail Winter Ale, Hood River
7.2% ABV; 56 IBUs
Brewer’s Description: Wassail is brewed with a range of caramel and dark chocolate malts giving it a deep mahogany color and full malty body. We used a blend of Pacific Northwest hops for a pleasant hoppy aroma and finish, creating a deliciously balanced beer that appeals to both hop and malt lovers alike.
Consumer Comments: As winter approaches and night falls early, Full Sail’s Wassail Winter Ale provides an inviting warmth to ward off the chill. A favorite among tasting panelists, this brew exhibits notes of cocoa and toffee with a bit of nutty toast. Tasters described this brew as “full of flavor” and “very drinkable.”
Burnside: Permafrost, Portland
8.3% ABV; 77 IBUs
Brewer’s Description: Our original winter elixir is a big strong ale brewed with seven different malts and copious amounts of Columbia and Amarillo hops. It’s designed to give this warming brew a chewy, complex malt body and a unique fruity, juicy hoppiness throughout. You won’t want to just sip this dangerously strong and tasty beer … but you should.
Consumer Comments: With an autumn hue of unfiltered apple juice, the Permafrost from Burnside sports exuberant carbonation, balanced hops and a clean finish. Tasters liked this brew’s sweet character, noting its balance, hints of honey and palate-cleansing acidity. All agreed this beer would be a great holiday party pleaser.
Golden Valley: Tannen Bomb, McMinnville
8.0% ABV; 50 IBUs
Brewer’s Description: Tannen Bomb is brewed annually to help take the chill off the Pacific Northwest winter clime. Our brewers use an enormous malt bill of primarily Northwest-grown two-row barley as well as Vienna, Monastique, Victory, crystal and chocolate malts. To balance the huge malt presence, Tannen Bomb is generously hopped with Apollo, Golding, Cascade and Willamette hops. Cheers!
Consumer Comments: McMinnville’s Golden Valley crafts this eagerly awaited holiday favorite every year. With a bold introduction, complete with notes of wheat, chocolate and even a little almond, this brew softens mid-palate, but returns for a strong finish. An altogether amiable brew, you might want to be careful — the Tannen Bomb will get the better of you if you don’t respect it.
Zoiglhaus: Nikolaus, Portland
5.1% ABV; 36 IBUs
Brewer’s Description: Do you really think St. Nick wants to eat chocolate chip cookies and drink milk after busting his ass all night? Hell, no! He wants to pound lagers and eat gingerbread. With that image in mind, we thought we would save him some trouble and just put the two things together: German Pilsner, Wheat, Munich, Caramel, Carapils and CARAFA malts were selected to work their magic with a secret blend of gingerbread spices and a splash of German Magnum and Hersbrucker hops. Nikolaus is spicy, delicate, nuanced and plain fun. Enjoy our celebration of the seasons!
Consumer Comments: Everybody loves a visit from St. Nick and Zoiglhaus’ Nikolaus was no exception. This brew captures the holiday spirit up front with aromas of cinnamon and clove. The gentle spices yield to ginger and citrus, never letting the taster forget its spicy foundation. Panelists thought this brew might accompany a spiced holiday ham or act as a perfect stand-alone beverage to boost your guests’ holiday spirit.
Cascade Brewing Barrel House: Sang Noir, Portland
9.9% ABV; 10 IBUs
Brewer’s Description: Sang Noir is a blend of sour imperial red ales aged in bourbon and wine barrels for up to two years with Bing cherries. It features flavors of dark roast malts, bourbon, cherries and port.
Consumer Comments: Cascade’s Sang Noir is a great holiday treat, perfect for the fall and winter. Presenting a uniquely seductive fruit nose, the brew’s fruit character merges effortlessly with its mid-level carbonation. Sang Noir’s bold notes of apple and cherry delighted our panelists, drawing comparisons to ciders and wines.
As an all-year-long rule, the exceptional creativity of our regional brewers manages to capture the independent spirit of the Pacific Northwest magnificently. But at no other time of year is this talent as evident as it is during the holidays, when their efforts produce some of the best seasonal brews around. And whether you have children or not, you can hoist a pint and toast the good cheer the season offers.
By Gail Oberst
For the Oregon Beer Growler
What is a winter warmer? It’s an enigma wrapped in a label and poured in a glass. The answer, in Oregon anyway, is best left to poetic interpretation.
But perhaps the experts can help us. When I looked up winter warmer’s definition on the BeerAdvocate website, I found a description including “malty sweet,” “low hop bitterness” and some allusions to wassail-like spices.
Some of the beers judged by consumers at the Oregon Beer Growler’s winter warmer tasting fit those descriptions, but more often, winter warmers in Oregon lodge themselves firmly in categories all their own. Oregon’s winter warmers occupy a wide range of styles and innovation. Olde ales, IPAs, barleywines, brown ales, farmhouse ales and CDAs are all perfect winter warmers, as far as Oregon brewers who entered this tasting were concerned.
What’s this mean for you, craft beer drinker? It means a wonderful variety of seasonal beers are now in your local bottle shop or on tap in your brewpub. These brews can be enjoyed with a holiday meal, on the slopes, in front of a fireplace or at a New Year’s celebration.
As always in our blind tastings, our non-professional tasters were asked to indicate what beers they liked as a winter warmer. Their choices and comments are as follows:
McMenamins: *565 Strong Ale, Eugene 9.3% ABV, 100 IBUs
Brewer’s Description: A big-time beer for big-time fans. This beer was brewed in the fall of 2014 and aged with Billy Whiskey-infused oak, giving it plenty of time to grow up and work its way into your glass. Plenty of Chinook and Cascade hops.
Consumer Comments: Tastes like a prized bottle pulled from the cellar and slowly sipped. Smells like barleywine teen spirit. Tequila! Full-bodied, flavorful brew; easy to sip by the side of a fire. James Joyce’s Chamber Music XXXVI. This is the beer you bring home to mom and dad if mom and dad respect beer, bourbon and liquid blankets. Great for winding down after Christmas or family gathering shenanigans. Bourbon, heavy, malty.
Uptown Market: Beeracle Off 92nd Street, Portland 9.5% ABV, 49 IBUs
Brewer’s Description: Believe in Beeracles! Cold-steeped, roasted malts lend complex flavors without any acidic bites. This warmer also boasts a complex blend of chocolate, tobacco, fruit sweetness and is that a hint of toffee? Yes, yes it is.
Consumer Comments: Flavor explodes in my mouth at first taste. Very good … I enjoyed this one. Reminiscent of raw cocoa, so it’s good for me, right? Is it barrel-aged? Coffee strong.
Wild Ride: Nut-Crusher Peanut Butter Porter, Redmond 6.0% ABV, 18 IBUs
Brewer’s Description: Wild Ride brings together two favorite flavors, peanut butter and porter, in this nutty, chocolaty and caramel beer. It’s a true liquid peanut butter cup.
Consumer Comments: Like a liquid chocolate truffle treat with a strong nuttiness. Tastes like semi-sweet baking chips. Very chocolaty. Makes me want to drink it with ice cream. Peanut butter explosion in my mouth. Drink this with a brownie. Sexy candy. Tremendously dangerous. Drink this for dessert after every meal. Dutch Bros. Can I drink this for breakfast?
Cascade Lakes: Slippery Slope, Redmond 6.4% ABV, 50 IBUs
Brewer’s Description: This beer is one smooth, wintery ride. Full-bodied and well-balanced, this seasonal ale uses crystal malt and generous amounts of Cascade hops.
Consumer Comments: Not heavy, but good for a mellow Oregon winter. I loved it. Nice and mellow. Kind of takes you by surprise. Fragrant like a Christmas candle. Hoppy and floral. Piney.
Hop Valley: Festeroo Winter Ale, Eugene 6.8% ABV, 60 IBUs
Brewer’s Description: When it’s cold outside, wrap yourself up in this Northwest take on an English-style old ale. It’s brewed with a slightly spicy combination of malts and hops.
Consumer Comments: A respite from the season: bright, hoppy and a break from the rain. Super enjoyable winter sippin’ brew. Really enjoyed this winter brew. Lemon bread with jam. I could drink this in the summer, too.
Sunriver: Shred Head Winter Ale, Sunriver 8% ABV, 50 IBUs
Brewer’s Description: A robust, Northwest-styled ale brewed with dark brown sugar, packed with the finest American and European malts and fortified with the a hearty helping of Northwest and British hops.
Consumer Comments: Sweet warmth. A winter treasure. Perfect for winter. Bready and malty. Christmas candy. Burnt sugar.
Montavilla: Old Fellowship Barleywine, Portland 9.8% ABV, 60+ IBUs
Brewer’s Description: Big malt aroma rides side by side with a figgy, caramel-toffee aroma. Centennial hops balance out this mighty barleywine with citrusy, dank notes. Young, but still smooth and drinkable.
Consumer Comments: This brew would be great to sip in an igloo. Spicy like an IPA but soft and syrupy. Malty and boozy. Big, but easy to drink. Zippy aftertaste.
NEXT FREE TASTING: Oregon Beer Growler’s Belgians Tasting, 2 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 12, at F.H. Steinbart Co., 234 SE 12th St., Portland.
Oregon Beer Growler each month invites consumers to “blind” taste a different style or group of beers at various locations across the state.